In May Apple and Google announced its contact tracing API. Called the Exposure Notification System, its purpose is to support the development of COVID-19 contact tracing apps. While the Australian government has said its testing this with the COVIDSafe app, recent remarks indicate it may never get rolled in.
Originally there was some hope that Google and Apple’s API would help solve some of COVIDSafe’s problems — including bluetooth functionality issues on iOS and battery drain. And it seemed like the government was interested.
“The DTA and the Department of Health have been working with Apple and Google to understand and test the Exposure Notification Framework since it was released to see how it can be applied in Australia. That testing is ongoing,” a DTA spokesperson to Gizmodo Australia on May 23.
For the next month the government didn’t say much about the tests or whether the API would be rolled into COVIDSafe. Meanwhile, both Google and Apple pushed out software updates to ensure devices were ready to use the Exposure notification system.
COVIDSafe and the Exposure Notification System
This relative silence was broken on Sunday night. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth told The Project that it’s unlikely that COVIDSafe will move to the Exposure Notification System.
“[Apple and Google’s framework] fundamentally changes the locus of control, it takes out the middle person and the middle person is the contact tracer, the people who have kept us safe,” Coatsworth said.
“There is no way we’re shifting to a platform that’s going to take out the contact tracers.”
A spokesperson for the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, confirmed the government is still working with Google and Apple. However, there is concern about their automated and privacy-first approach to contact tracing.
“It is important to note, the COVIDSafe app is designed to supplement manual contact tracing,” the spokesperson said.
“The current Apple and Google tracing platforms are structured very differently. They rely on the individual who tests positives to initiate sending the alert to the close contacts, and those people reacting to automated notifications, isolating and getting tested.”
“Public health officials won’t have access to that information, which will reside with Google and Apple. This is high risk. People may ignore the information and that will lead to the further spread of the virus. Alerts may also create confusion and panic within the community without the appropriate support and guidance currently provided by public health officials.”
Privacy first approach to contact tracing
Google and Apple stated in May that the Exposure Notification System would place privacy and security first. They stated that the following rules must be included in any contact tracing app that uses their API:
- Users need to choose to turn on exposure notifications and can switch them of at anytime
- Device location is not collected, including for those who test positive for COVID-19
- Other users, Google and Apple do not know the identity of users
- Exposure notification matching is done on device only and is controlled by the user
- Only official public health authorities are allowed to use the system
- The system will be disabled on a region by region basis once it is no longer necessary to be used
Further to this, apps that use the API must be created by a public health agency and cannot force users to share positive test results. Only apps with user consent will be allowed to use the API.
According to Minister Robert’s office, Google and Apple’s approach “make it difficult for the health officials to follow cases and contain outbreaks.”
“This distributed model of contact tracing is considered significantly less effective at mapping and tracking the spread of COVID-19 than the current method used by public health officials,” the spokesperson for Minister Robert said.
While we can’t entirely rule out the use of the Exposure Notification System in COVIDSafe — it doesn’t seem all that positive at the present time.
Considering COVIDSafe’s myriad of tech issues and that it hasn’t been properly utilised yet (at least according to public records), one has to wonder what the government is fighting to preserve here. As COVID-19 cases rise in Melbourne again, we need an app that works.